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Rules Changes for 2016

By Joe Foley, USGA

| Dec 13, 2015 | Far Hills, N.J.

Rule 14-3, which covers violations for use of artificial devices or abnormal use of equipment, has been modified for 2016. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

We are quickly approaching Jan. 1, 2016, which means that a new set of the Rules of Golf will soon take effect. As with any revision, minor refinements will be made throughout the Rules and Decisions to provide additional guidance and further clarifications to golfers around the globe. These small tweaks will be accompanied by more significant changes to the Rules that are sure to affect play in both casual and competitive rounds. Let’s take a closer look at three of these principal changes:

Rule 6-6d: Wrong Score for Hole

We have all found ourselves deep in the trees without another player around. What if something goes wrong? In this game, while we often serve as our own referee, we are always in a position to know how many strokes we’ve made. When you’re alone in the woods, only you know whether you accidentally moved your ball or decided that a penalty drop was the best course of action. Because of this, in every stroke-play competition, you are solely responsible for the correctness of your scores on your score card.

However, what if you were not aware of a penalty stroke that you incurred? Currently, if this becomes known after you return your score card, under Rule 6-6d, you are disqualified. But relief is on the way … beginning in 2016, disqualification will not always be the result.

A new Exception has been added to Rule 6-6d that will allow you, in the above situation, to remain in a competition:

If a competitor returns a score for any hole lower than actually taken due to failure to include one or more penalty strokes that, before returning his score card, he did not know he had incurred, he is not disqualified. In such circumstances, the competitor incurs the penalty prescribed by the applicable Rule and an additional penalty of two strokes for each hole at which the competitor has committed a breach of Rule 6-6d. This Exception does not apply when the applicable penalty is disqualification from the competition.

Several new Decisions explain how the new Exception will be implemented. Some examples include:

  • Decision 6-6d/7 clarifies that if you breach Rule 6-6d more than once during the round, the two-stroke penalty (plus the prescribed penalty) will apply to each hole where a breach of Rule 6-6d occurred;
  • Decision 6-6d/10 states that it is your responsibility to take action if there is uncertainty around a Rules situation. In other words, if you fail to include penalty strokes after an issue was brought to your attention by a fellow-competitor or after you were unsure if you proceeded correctly, you are deemed to have known that you incurred a penalty and the Exception will not apply.

Please note that the Exception will not apply to simple math errors. If you miscount the number of strokes taken on a hole and sign for a score lower than actually taken, the disqualification penalty still applies.

Rule 14-3: Artificial Devices and Unusual Equipment; Abnormal Use of Equipment

This Rule has a new look and feel. For one, the title is simpler. In addition, the new Rule will start with a guiding principle that should help you understand how the USGA and The R&A determine whether a player has breached Rule 14-3:

Golf is a challenging game in which success should depend on the judgment, skills and abilities of the player. This principle guides the USGA in determining whether the use of any item is in breach of Rule 14-3.

That said, one of the most significant changes to the Rule involves the penalty statement. Beginning in 2016, you now simply incur a loss of hole penalty in match play or a two-stroke penalty in stroke play for the first time you breach Rule 14-3 – a deviation from the current penalty of disqualification. If you make a mistake, you will no longer face a quick end to your match or competition with a single breach.

However, any subsequent offenses will continue to result in a disqualification penalty. Here are some examples of how the disqualification penalty will be applied:

  • If you use a distance-measuring device before two different strokes during the round, when a Local Rule permitting distance-measuring devices is not in effect, you are disqualified (See New Decision 14-3/20, but also see New Decision 14-3/19 for multiple uses before a single stroke)
  • If you use two pieces of unusual equipment in breach of Rule 14-3 at any time during the round, you are disqualified (See New Decision 14-3/20)
  • If you wear a non-conforming glove over the course of two strokes, you are disqualified (See New Decision 14-3/21)

Please note that this new penalty structure is only intended to benefit the player that breaches Rule 14-3 on a single occasion. In other words, if you use an artificial device several times throughout the round, but the discovery of the breach does not occur until the second or latter breach, the penalty remains disqualification. 

In conclusion, one mistake will cost you some. Two mistakes will send you home.

Finally, there is a subtle change in how Rule 14-3 will be applied related to distance-measuring devices that you will not find in the text of the Rule. Instead, you’ll need to reference the text of the Local Rule or Appendix IV. Its effect, though, is significant.

The end of Appendix IV now reads:

A multi-functional device, such as a smartphone or PDA, may be used as a distance-measuring device, but it must not be used to gauge or measure other conditions where doing so would be a breach of Rule 14-3.

This short yet powerful statement is a shift from the current interpretation of Rule 14-3 – one that prohibits a player from using any device that includes a feature that, if used, would be a breach of the Rules (e.g., gauging wind), even if you did not use that feature.

Now that’s changed. Beginning in 2016, when the Local Rule is in effect, you may use any application or device to measure distance, provided you do not use any feature on the device that, if used, would be a breach of Rule 14-3. For example, if you have a laser range finder that has the ability to give you distance only to a target but can also give you the effective playing distance for an uphill shot, you can use this device as long as you don’t use the effective playing distance feature. Rule 14-3 will now mirror the rest of the Rules of Golf, where honesty is expected and presumed. As long as you do not use features in breach of the Rules, you have nothing to worry about and will be playing within the Rules.

Rule 18-2: Ball at Rest Moved By Player, Partner, Caddie or Equipment

The change that will likely have the biggest impact across all levels of the game involves Rule 18-2. The current Rule is split into two parts – Rule 18-2a places a responsibility on you to ensure that you do not cause your ball in play to move, whereas Rule 18-2b places a heavier burden on you to ensure that your ball does not move after address, even for a fault not your own.

Recall a situation when you addressed your ball and were ready to putt, only to watch your ball rotate away from its current position. If it was due to wind or an outside agency, you may have been in luck. Otherwise, you were “deemed to have moved the ball” and on the hook for a penalty. 

Beginning in 2016, the current language in Rule 18-2a will stand alone in the new Rule 18-2 and Rule 18-2b will be withdrawn. Therefore, if your ball moves after you address it, the application of a penalty under Rule 18-2 will be based solely on whether you caused your ball to move. While you will still need to take care when you are near your ball, this change will allow you to focus on the challenge that lies ahead – your next stroke – not a potential breach for a situation over which you have little control.

As always, there will be times when it is difficult to determine why the ball moved in a given situation. New Decision 18-2/0.5 will confirm that relevant information must be considered and that the weight of the evidence must be evaluated to determine whether you are ultimately responsible for the movement. If it is more likely than not that you caused your ball to move, you incur a one-stroke penalty under Rule 18-2 and must replace the ball. In other words, there may be doubt about the cause, but if the weight of the evidence indicates you were most likely the cause of the ball's movement, you are in breach of Rule 18-2. Otherwise, you are held blameless and will not incur a penalty.

These three principal changes will enable players to approach their rounds with less trepidation, for there is now a slimmer chance of disqualification and a more reasonable way to handle mistakes on the course. The widely discussed anchoring prohibition (Rule 14-1b) is the fourth principal change to the Rules. Check out our microsite Anchoring: Understanding Rule 14-1b to learn about its implementation and to see some of the strokes that will continue to be permitted in 2016. For more information on the remaining changes to the Rules, please visit:

Joe Foley is the manager, Rules outreach and programming, for the USGA. Email him at

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